Nancy Pelosi is back. The first time she claimed the speaker of the House's gavel, Democrats took control thanks not only to an unpopular Republican president but also public revulsion against the war in Iraq. A dozen years later, the GOP commander-in-chief sufficed on his own.
Anti-war progressives are nevertheless poised to play a key role inside the new majority. Democrats are regaining the House of Representatives right as President Trump is considering an end to U.S. involvement in at least two wars. In addition to the possible withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, Congress is also on the verge of stopping American participation in a third war (Yemen).
To fully capitalize on this moment, Democrats will have to do better than their predecessors from the first Pelosi Congress even though war and foreign policy played a much smaller role in their election. If anything, the Trump administration has revived liberal hawks who compare Russian electoral interference to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Pearl Harbor (casus belli of the war on terror and World War II, respectively) and resist troop withdrawals.
Even the Democrats elected at the nadir of the Iraq war in 2006 presided over — and funded — a troop "surge" in that country and several more years of war that risked spilling over into other parts of the region. Troops didn't come home until late in President Barack Obama's first term as president, by which time Democrats had already lost the House again.
This time it's a Republican president who Democrats were elected to oppose who offers the best chance to excise America from its endless, often undeclared, wars. And this time, it is MSNBC, not Fox News, that is engaged in a full-on freakout.
Still, there are a lot of Democratic doves who put principle above party in working with Republicans to stop counterproductive wars. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) tweeted that he was "glad" Trump was pulling troops out of Syria. "Congress never authorized the intervention," he wrote. "The U.S. must now use our leverage with Turkey to oppose violence against the Kurds and seek an overdue cease fire and negotiated solution."
The Twitter feed of Khanna's fellow California Democrat, Rep. Ted Lieu, is full of anti-Trump jibes. (Even his bio says, "I don't take orders from Vladimir Putin.") Lieu nevertheless said Khanna was "absolutely right."
"Note to liberals who now support military force in Syria because of the Kurds or Russia or Iran or Turkey or humanitarian reasons: NONE OF THOSE WAR ACTIONS WERE AUTHORIZED BY CONGRESS," Lieu tweeted (emphasis his), adding Trump was correct to withdraw troops.
Not all Democrats agreed. Howard Dean, the anti-war candidate for the party's 2004 presidential nomination, rebuked Khanna for supporting a withdrawal from Afghanistan in terms reminiscent of the neoconservatives he once campaigned against.
"By withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan you are condemning millions of women to the Stone Age," the former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman wrote. "No education, no choice about who they marry. They will become property when the Taliban takes over. Is that what you really want Ro?"
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) will be important. Although she has received less attention than Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), she is the most likely of the anti-war House Democrats to run for president in 2020. She has already been to New Hampshire and has said she's "seriously" considering seeking the White House.
Gabbard was equivocal in her initial comments about Trump's Syria announcement, expressing concern about Turkey and the lack of a clear mission (many who support the president's underlying policy would like to proceed slowly for these reasons). She later decried as "astonishing" the "hysterical reaction to the decision to withdraw troops from Syria," arguing hawks "want us to continue our regime change war in Syria and to go to war with Iran."
If someone like Gabbard, frequently panned as too cozy with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, is reluctant to back Trump on troop withdrawals, there is little hope for Warren or rising stars like freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y). But if a genuine left-right anti-war coalition of the kind that was impossible during Pelosi's first reign can be assembled, real progress is possible.
Whether Democrats would like to change the country's sputtering foreign policy or merely the commander-in-chief remains to be seen.